WHITEHORSE MOUNTAIN CLASSIC ROCK FESTIVAL
FEATURING GRAND FUNK RAILROAD, FOGHAT, PAT TRAVERS, AND OTHERS
Whitehorse Mountain Amphitheatre, 877-202-2999, $50
2 p.m. Sun., Aug. 18
April 26, 1996, the State Theatre, Detroit: Grand Funk Railroad are onstage together for the first time in two decades, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Motor City Music Awards ceremony. Forgotten for the moment are the ego problems and personal issues that broke up the legendary '70s band.
In fact, it's a sweet reunion, and between 1996 and 1998, Grand Funk will tour extensively, issue a live album (Bosnia, with a Paul Schaffer-conducted symphony orchestra), and record a spate of new material for Capitol Records' three-CD anthology 30 Years of Funk: 1969- 1999.
This is a group, remember, that was a massive concert draw during its 1969-75 heyday, selling millions of records on the strength of such hits as "Closer to Home," "The Loco-Motion," "Bad Time," and perennial party anthem "We're an American Band."
Cut to 2002 and the www.GrandFunkRailroad.com message board of concert reviews:
"The American Band is BACK!"
"These men had people on their feet, clapping, cheering, and having a FUNKIN' GREAT TIME!"
"I was skeptical . . . well, after seeing the band, there remains no skepticism in me! These guys are the real deal. They all are such excellent musicians and the chemistry is really working between these five guys."
Whoah—rewind. "Five guys"?!? Wasn't Grand Funk Railroad three guys—Mark, Don, and Mel? But the group photo on the GFR Web site confirms it: original drummer and bassist Don Brewer and Mel Schacher, plus guitarist Bruce Kulick (ex-KISS), singer Max Carl (ex-Jack Mack & the Heart Attack, .38 Special), and keyboardist Tim Cashion (from Bob Seger's band). Whatever happened to, as Homer Simpson once famously put it, "The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bone-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drum work of Don Brewer?"
In 2000, Farner decided to return to his solo career. After weighing their options, Brewer and Schacher hit the road the next year, minus their former frontman, with their five-man American band. (Farner, unsurprisingly, wasn't pleased when he learned his old bandmates were touring under the Grand Funk name. Suffice it to say that the two camps remain deeply estranged.)
Brewer is diplomatic about the scenario, well aware that some hard-line fans won't accept a Farner-less GFR. "A lot of it just has to do with the mind set," says Brewer. "Some people aren't going to turn that corner no matter what. Then other people are more like, 'It's still a good band.' I understand that. People have their preferences, and that's fine—I don't have any problem!"
And he's naturally upbeat about GFRx5, pointing out that they're not out on the road merely as a human jukebox and that a new release, a combination of live and studio material on either DVD or CD, is in the works.
"It's a great band: Bruce, Max, Tim—these are wonderful people; everybody just having a ball. This year we'll do more in our downtime and concentrate on the new studio stuff. We already have two new songs, 'Sky High' and 'Who Took Down the Stars,' right now in the show, and we're working on putting in a third. It all comes down to trying to work these in so they make sense in the show. If they do, then we've got something."
Forming in Flint, Mich., in 1969, Grand Funk Railroad quickly signed to Capitol and hit it big with their brawny, blues/funk/soul-based brand of hard rock and psychedelia. Their early career was steered by their Col. Tom Parker-like manager, Terry Knight (he orchestrated a 1971 record-breaking sellout of Shea Stadium), yet after firing Knight over financial disputes, Grand Funk went on to even greater success.
All along, GFR never seemed to get any respect from the press, something Brewer chalks up to jealousy on the part of critics ("frustrated musicians") and the fact that "we were American. Just local guys. For the English guys, the press was like, 'Oh, they're great! They're from England!' That was the thing. For some reason you're not up to their [critics'] standard, so they like to rake you over the coals. And yet I'll always admit it— we were a garage band, just guys out in the Midwest wanting to play music. But just because we weren't technically great musicians didn't mean we didn't know how to play from the heart and from the soul and put together something that people liked. That's what [the critics] didn't get. And on top of that, our manager just loved shoving everything down the reporters' throats. He was a firm believer in 'there's no such thing as bad publicity.'"
If you believe that 50 bazillion Grand Funk fans can't be wrong, then the band had the last laugh. Now's a good time for re- evaluating the GFR legacy, too. A previously unreleased concert album, Live: The 1971 Tour, and a best-of CD, Classic Masters, were released by Capitol last month, while this week sees the rerelease of the first four Grand Funk albums (1969's On Time and Grand Funk, 1970's Closer to Home and Live Album), complete with 24-bit remastering and bonus tracks. By early 2003, the rest of the band's Capitol catalog should be in the stores.
Meanwhile, GFR in 2002 are not the stadium-conquering monster of yore, but it's clear that both the band and its fans are having a great time. For his part, Brewer says putting on a good show and connecting with the audience remain his prime directives.
"It's kind of a change from what it was 30 years ago, when you really couldn't talk to the fans. Now, everybody's an adult and able to communicate on a very friendly, personal level, and it's nice.
"Every time I do an interview," concludes Brewer, laughing, "they always ask me if there's anything I want to tell the people. I say, 'Yeah, bring a smile—and be prepared to sweat!' That's what we want to do: Make 'em smile and sweat."